Adventures in India

This is an open journal of some of the things I see and think about while trying to find a place to live in India. It may or may not be interesting. I make no promises.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


When Murugan and I were in Varanasi, I saw something that stuck with me. Riding in a motor rickshaw, we stopped briefly in the middle of an outdoor flower market. In a small clearing between two carts lay the corpse of a dead monkey. It lay as if asleep, one arm extended naturally. Someone had arranged a circle of orange marigold buds around the body, and placed a white flower on its head and one in its outstretched hand.

I like to imagine the person doing this: arranging the body, carefully placing the flowers in a circle, saying a quick prayer. What a strange, generous impulse...where does it come from? A great tenderness comes over me when I think of this. Here in India, the other vendors would respect this mysterious impulse, and not disturb the shrine, perhaps adding their own prayers to it.

One of the most popular gods here is Hanuman the monkey god, whose adventures are told in the vast epic The Ramayana. E.M. Forrester, in his novel A Passage to India, described Him this way, borrowing from John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, He took on monkey's flesh." The novel has been criticized by some for being condescending in its attitude towards India. I don't think so. I think he captured something basic about the Hindu world view.

Hanuman is the paragon of devotion and selfless love to Rama, who is himself a hero incarnation of God. Hindus take Hanuman as their model of one who has become completely consumed by the love of God. Many images depict him ripping his chest open in a gory display of piety, revealing Rama and his wife Sita peeking out, raising their hands in blessing. Because of this, monkeys are sacred. But even so, they will jump on your shoulders and grab food out of your hands. They have also been known to steal cameras out of tourists' bags, and run off into the jungle.

A month ago I visited a temple near Vellore with a giant cobra's nest rising out of the earth in the inner sanctuary. One of the faces of God was imbedded in its side. At night the snakes come out of their big termite-like nest, and slither around the temple. No one can remember anyone ever being bitten, and the temple is rat-free. There are beautifully carved naga stones set up all over India in places people have felt that special naga mojo. A naga is a powerful earth spirit in the form of a cobra. The slabs of black rock show two snakes entwined, caduceus style. Offerings are left, prayers for fertility made here. If a person finds it necesarry to kill a cobra, they must burn its body and leave a rupee coin in the ashes. They also must explain to the snake's spirit why he was killed, and ask for forgiveness. Otherwise, legend has it, the mate of the dead cobra will track down the murderer and kill him. There is also an underground trade in baby cobras in some parts of India. The venom is supposed to be a very unique high, and is obtained by allowing the baby snake to bite your tongue. A couple people die every year from this practice.

Rats have their sacred place here as well. There is a temple up north where thousands of rats are fed and allowed to run all over the place. The elephant-headed god Ganesh has a rat as his vehicle It is also thought by some that the souls of poets and children are reincarnated as rats, so must be treated with respect(unless you are a cobra).

Sacred cows with beautiful eyes, donkeys with big bellys, pariah dogs with no hair and skin dragging the ground, brahmin bulls with horns painted blue with tips of silver, goats eating movie posters...all wander around, reminding you every time you step outside that we are not the only species on the planet and we have to share space. Yes, you have to avoid the cow shit in the street, and sometimes there is a mild traffic jam because three cows have decided to lay down in the middle of the street and contemplate life flowing by. It all contributes to the dirt and confusion and delays, but also to the magic of the place.

It is strange how I always miss the animals when I leave India. Except the cockroaches.


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